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Author Topic: [apocalypse girl] Unofficial Ronnies feedback  (Read 11781 times)
hix
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Posts: 531

Steve Hickey


« on: November 16, 2005, 07:32:35 PM »

apocalypse girl had an instantaneously appealing hook to me:

Quote
God chose you to save the world. Congrats.
Here's the thing: Nobody gave you any superpowers. You get no Slayer strength, no kung-fu grip, no costume. You're just you. Except, of course, for the Super 3-D Saint John of Patmos Vision (tm) where you pass someone in the street and you see the numbers on their forehead, or a lamb standing as if slain, or that goddamned dragon again, and you know what their destiny will be. If you don't change them. Convert them? Seduce them? Shoot them in the head? That's up to you.

Itís Frailty the RPG (if youíve seen that Bill Paxton movie).

First page: great intro. I donít normally read game fiction but thatís a great intro.

In fact, the whole first half of the gameís well written. The Dice & Cards section presents the core philosophy for play. Maybe consider renaming that section so its importance is clearer?

Around the time the mechanics were introduced, my eyes glazed over a bit. An example of play would be good. On the other hand, apocalypse girl seems to have been written in 5 hours, so I think I can deal.

And the basic mechanics are pretty simple. You create Engines - things that contribute to the game (people, places, ideas, personality traits) that can either be taken over or destroyed. Every player has one engine to start with; itís called their Core. The object of the game is to take other players Cores out of the game.

Charges, which are a number of dice associated with the consequence of an event in the story, seem a bit ambiguous to me. I understand how theyíre created Ė when you decrease the Power or Loyalty of an Engine, or take it away from another player Ė but I donít really get how the dice associated with a Charge are used. [without reading anything about them yet]

This is a short, competitive game I could see myself playtesting
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Cheers,
Steve

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Ben Lehman
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« Reply #1 on: November 16, 2005, 07:58:20 PM »

Here we are, crouched in the dark, giving unofficial feedback.  Oooh... spooky!

Look, it's the bastard offspring of Capes and Polaris!  Cool!

The concept of apocolypse girl is excellent.  The opening fiction is excellent.  I am totally skeptical of the system's ability to render that sort of narrative in play (what does it mean to kill somone?  How would I do it and why?) but, being that it is a Capes offspring, I'm totally not surprised that I'm confused by the system -- this is following in a grand tradition of me being totally confused by Capes and then realizing "hey, wait, this produces good play!  Cool!"

So I guess all I can say is, for me, I would like you to be clearer about what the game does, in the text, or to play it with me.  Or both.

yrs--
--Ben
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Ben Lehman
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« Reply #2 on: November 16, 2005, 07:59:59 PM »

Hrm -- A little more specifically, I want to know what it means to "change" someone and what the Jon of Patmos Vision (tm) shows at any time for a given NPC.  I sort of have an idea, but I'm not very clear.

The set-up gives this really great business -- the girl can see if people are going to be good or bad, and has to decide whether to kill them or save them.  That's cool.  I'm not seeing how that comes across in play.

yrs--
--Ben
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hix
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Posts: 531

Steve Hickey


« Reply #3 on: November 17, 2005, 06:47:26 PM »

Part of the game captures the flavour of the opening fiction - the Engines are created by one of the 3 players - so they bear the mark of either the Dragon, the World or the Girl. Or at least I can suspend my disbelief enough while playing the game to believe that.

But that idea of really fighting to win an Engine over from the Dragon, say, or (if you fail that) killing it? I'm not sure how invested (as a player) I would be in that process yet. However, I haven't played Capes or test-driven the mechanics of apocalypse girl. Maybe the building pools of Conflict Dice and the tension of whether you'll give or not create that investment.
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Steve

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Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #4 on: November 17, 2005, 07:30:09 PM »

Good Lord. (Or, punishing, merciless, look-upon-My-face-and-die Lord. Either one's good). I have feedback.

Quick clarification: A Charge is just a Ready Pile of dice that never renews itself because it's not attached to an Engine. That's it. The idea of narrating a casual link back to the Charge's creation when you roll dice from it is a Capes trick (called "Inspirations" there).

The mechanics need an example of play in the worst possible way, absolutely.

More subtly, the rules need guidance on how to narrate each particular trick of the dice, since those are currently way too abstract. Cancelling an opponent's dice, for example, would be narrated as (obviously) the Engine you just rolled from doing something to cancel the opposing side's effort; capturing dice (less obviously) means your Engine somehow jujitsu'd your opponent's own effort against them. This would be more interesting if I'd had time to write up the rules for using different die sizes: d4s and d6s are less likely to be able to Cancel anything but more likely to match, and vice versa for d8s and d10s.

Still more subtly, the rules need examples of Meanings for a whole variety of Engines, not just Cores: It's the Meaning of something that (uh, in theory) makes you then care whether the numbers go up or down -- and yes, that's absolutely a Capes trick. Tony in particular is brilliant at writing things down on an index card that make you go "oh no! I can't let Tony get control of that! Think what he might narrate!"

Most important of all is what the Girl sees, people's destinies in Armageddon, and her choice to kill or redeem, which these mechanics don't punch up enough -- in part because I didn't explicitly state that someone's destiny is an Engine, but largely because taking an Engine out of play doesn't correlate in any clear way with killing off a character. Again, this would work better if I'd had time to figure out and write up my vague ideas for how specific Engines connect to specific other Engines in a network, as opposed to "these cards are yours, keep 'em handy." But in its simplest form, what I imagine the Girl sees is what's on the table in the game (literally and figuratively): what the Meaning of things really is, who really controls what, and how these forces drive us towards the End.
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hix
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Steve Hickey


« Reply #5 on: November 17, 2005, 09:47:50 PM »

Quote from: Sydney
... but largely because taking an Engine out of play doesn't correlate in any clear way with killing off a character.

Huh <of realisation>.

So for the 3 players, a game could centre around one NPC defined by a whole bunch of different engines - this is Jed the architecture student, this is Jed's Destiny to bring about the apocalypse, this is Jed's Optimism & this is Jed's Car. And the whole game would be about vying over the fate of those aspects of Jed.

Whereas Frailty is sort of the road movie version of this game, narrowing the focus down to the aspects of one or two NPCs (or places or whatever) would lift the amount I was invested in their fates.

Just an idea.
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Cheers,
Steve

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Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #6 on: November 18, 2005, 07:09:15 PM »

Huh-of-realization here too, actually. I hadn't thought about that, but yeah, the whole game could be a war for one person's soul (now I have to rent Frailty, which I've never seen). At the opposite end of the spectrum, you could have sprawling Illumaniti-esque politics where at least some Engines represent globe-spanning empires, but that'd bore me, frankly. What is explicitly prohibited is superpowered throwdowns with demons and cultists, since the rules say there is no superpower but the Gun. As such this Girl is basically the anti-Buffy. The soap opera's allowed, the superpowers aren't. The middle-ground between the "global game" and the "world in one man" game is one where some Engines represent groups, others individuals, still others aspects of individuals.

Which brings me to the blogosphere, from which I'm going to drag a conversation bodily back onto the Forge:

1) Vincent Baker, in his blog Anyway

Quote from: Vincent's blog
what's necessary is escalation...What isn't necessary is that it's escalation upward in scale. Escalation can be inward, outward, upward, whatever.

2) Ben Lehman, commenting on Vincent's blog bit above in his (unimaginatively named) blog, This is My Blog

Quote from: Ben's blog
I want to play a game which escalates inward -- you begin the game outwardly focused (which is to say travelling and moving and saving the world) and your stakes gradually become more and more personal, until eventually the only questions are purely psychological / mystical in nature.

3) My comment on Ben's blog on Ben's comment on Vincent's comment on Vincent's blog

Quote from: me, crossposting
Amen to Ben (as usual). I'd love apocalypse girl to do this.

Obviously the mechanics don't yet support this very well. But given that this is Capes derivative, I think that the mechanics make good narration a good strategy and reward players for pushing each others' buttons by creating moral dilemmas that are also tactical dilemmas. (In GNS-speak, I'd suggest this is "gamist-supported narrativism"; it took me a year to decide that was what Capes is). I'll give some examples for a player whose role is The World -- since, like the Moons in Polaris from which it derives, this is, I think, the least obvious role to narrate.

So I'm playing the World. Let's say my Core Engine has a Meaning of "I'm late, I'm late!" -- my take on The World is a White Rabbit, Alice in Wonderland flurry of frantic but empty activity. Now I spend a die off that Core to build a new Engine. Mechanically, it starts out with a piddly little Power 1, Loyalty 1; that's invariable (until I write more flexible rules...). But I can write whatever Meaning I want to, and that's not merely a narrative decision, that's a tactical decision:

- I write on the Engine's card, "This is a fast car." Okay. That's mildly interesting. Characters need to get around, they get cut off in traffic, and Americans get all fetishistic about automobiles. But the other players will probably think about this Engine in terms of the dice it gives me and how easily they can take them away.

- I write on the Engine's card, "My Name Is Bob." That's better. Poor Bob can always show up in a scene, always running late, getting in the way of my opponents or hurrying on some errand for me. I can make the other players chuckle at his haplessness, his small triumphs, his exhausted collapse onto the couch at the end of the day. If one of them starts spending dice to wipe him out of the game, or to capture his card for themselves, I can now pose a moral question: "You're really going to use your insidious, Satanic influence to ruin this guy's little life? What kind of penny-ante Dragon are you?" or "You're going to make this poor guy into cannon fodder in your Children's Crusade? I'm sorry, was that a God of mercy you said you served?" Now their dice mean something to them besides a way of getting more dice, and their tactics get complicated by what kind of statement they want to make in the story.

- I write on the Engine's card, "This is the Girl's Period." Then I remind everyone my Core is "I'm Late! I'm Late!" Anyone playing the Girl is going to care about the narrative options that raises, out of proportion to the dice it generates. Anyone playing the Dragon better care too, especially if the Girl really is pregnant, especially if she's also a virgin, because we all know how that worked for the Devil the last time.

Now, there need to be more mechanics -- or, rather, just as many but better-designed mechanics -- to reinforce and reward this kind of strategy. The game could use an explicit "Not Yet..." narration rule like that in Capes, where you can narrate essentially anything you want to just happened unless it would prejudge or contradict something else still being resolved by the mechanics, which in this game would mean "any Engine still in play." It might also be a good idea to create explicit rules for rewriting the Meaning of an Engine (besides "if you capture a card, rewrite it as appropriate") by, say, two words at a time whenever you accumulate enough dice to change it. Other suggestions are, of course, immensely welcome.

P.S.

apocalypse girl seems to have been written in 5 hours...

Five hours from start to finish, but I had a conference to attend in the middle. Since I did it at work, I timed myself fairly carefully to record the "negative overtime": With a 30-minute margin of error either way, it took three hours.

Three. Hours.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #7 on: November 19, 2005, 08:51:11 AM »

Try not to make my brain bleed, please.

"Gamist-supported Narrativism" is not GNS-speak. It's meaningless.

Say strategic techniques that support a Narrativist agenda. Please. Have mercy on my brain.

Best,
Ron
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Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #8 on: November 19, 2005, 05:43:05 PM »

[mopping Ron's brain-blood off the thread] Errr, right. I should know better than to try GNS jargon. I was trying to say something like "the wargamey tactical bits are a source of challenge and satisfaction in themselves, but in fact they guide play towards thematic choices" -- a statement that's true of Capes and which, hopefully, will be true of apocalypse gir at some point several revisions in the future.
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Tobias
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« Reply #9 on: November 20, 2005, 05:27:01 AM »

Right. Consider something like that for SGvDD as well (heck, all my games, so far).

To ask Sydney a question someone else posed a while ago - what kind of actual play report would give you the biggest kick?
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Tobias op den Brouw

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TonyLB
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« Reply #10 on: November 20, 2005, 05:54:54 AM »

Cool stuff.  It looks (to me) as if the game would really start hitting on all cylinders when some character loses a major Engine to their opposition (as when the Girl's Immaculate Conception turns out to be the prophecied bringer of ruin at the hand of the Dragon, or their determination becomes arrogance in the hands of the World).  Then they start "fighting themselves" in a very literal manner.

Do you think that capture is going to be the start of a death spiral?  Or is it the moment that they reach for the Gun, to take back what's theirs?  Or maybe is it the moment that they compromise with the other apex of the conflict triangle (the Dragon took my baby ... if I want to get her back, maybe I can't live without the World after all?)

Cool options!  Me like!  We should playtest.
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Unco Lober
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« Reply #11 on: November 20, 2005, 09:59:42 AM »

Isn't this a fine time for me to stop lurking silently and say something! Hello, Forge.
-

The idea of Apocalypse Girl inspires me (just as much as its name does its opposite). And I personally think that after being properly revised this game can go far and become much. Just as everyone in the thread, i liked both the idea, and the spirit, much. Such things are often done that fast; though afterward crafting may still take much time.

Closer to the point, IMO, AG, being 85% complete as a game (because the idea is 10% defined and refined from the start), still need its mechanics. That was already stated in the thread, but my point is somewhat different. I don't think that game mechanics should be tougher than the current ones, or better integrated with the storytelling elements. The chasm between the last two is, IMO, just imaginary (if its the right english word) and follows from the form of the original rules document. If game mechanics were stated in a way more integrated with storytelling, the problem wouldn't just arise.

Still, current game mechanics, I think, are somewhat too messy. I would have rewriten them (and, liek, found myself urging to try and do it in near future, which I'll possibly really try out as a kind of a fan work) from scratch in order to have a more structurised, simpe and logic relations between Engines, Charges etc.. This is quite easy, I believe, for those used to create bases for rpg systems.

Well. At least at the moment I really believe that this may become a popular game even outside the gamers' communities. I have already arranged a playtest with some people from my regulary gaming group, and hope that experience would prove itself absolutely worthy. Possibilities of AG as a game are just... unimaginable! Thats not quite an RPG, since its more a game than is any narration imaginable, and more a narration than any game, whence, rpgs are... well, lost my point... ok, hope You got me right  :)... No, seriousely.

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Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #12 on: November 20, 2005, 12:46:39 PM »

I'm very gratified by all these thoughtful comments, the criticisms definitely included. Tony, let's absolutely throw a playtest together after Thanksgiving; Tobias, the most gratifying "Actual Play" report for me at the moment would be a detailed playtest report from a small, culturally liberal European country, preferable one with a significant land area below sea level (hint, hint).


I. Death Spirals?

It looks (to me) as if the game would really start hitting on all cylinders when some character loses a major Engine to their opposition ...Do you think that capture is going to be the start of a death spiral?† Or is it the moment that they reach for the Gun, to take back what's theirs?† Or maybe is it the moment that they compromise with the other apex of the conflict triangle....?

Yes to all, I hope.

Regular Engines, used by themselves, definitely create a death spiral: The more powerful your Engines, the easier it is to make and capture more for yourself while destroying your opponents'. There are four things in place to counter (I think!) that positive feedback loop -- not by putting brakes on it, but by creating power surges elsewhere in the system:

1) The Gun, obviously. It's a pacing mechanism. For the first few turns, it's hardly worth bothering with; but because it gains more dice every turn, the temptation to use it rises; and, conversely, because its side effects (the ricochet rule) pose the greatest risk to the most powerful Engines in play, whoever controls them, the risk of using it declines the further behind the other players you fall.

2) Charges, less obviously. You don't get any Charge for building up Engines, so there's no extra reward for sitting in a defensive crouch investing in your own ever-increasing strength. You do get a Charge for weakening, taking, or destroying Engines, so you're rewarded for picking fights -- which in itself would be positive feedback on top of taking/destroying enemy Engines, except that the player you defeated splits the dice with you, which is hardly compensation for his loss but gives him a club to smack you back with.

3) Capturing dice, even less obviously. If you have a big pile of dice invested in a Conflict Pile somewhere, but a bunch of them are showing the same number, and then the other guy just happens to roll a die that matches that number, BAM: All those dice switch sides and start working for him. I created this mechanic to counterbalance the general RPG tendency that the more important something is, the more dice get rolled on it, which means the more the probabilities even out: With dice captured by matching them, I think the result is that important conflicts with lots of dice invested in them are more vulnerable to sudden swings on lucky rolls. Again, when I write up rules for using different die sizes, this aspect of play will become much richer, because players will have to choose between nice, big d10s and d12s to Cancel opposing dice and tiny, fiddly d2s and d4s that can capture a whole bunch of enemy dice one moment and be captured in turn the next.

4) Having three sides. Competitive multi-player games have a huge negative feedback loop built in by their very nature: If player A gets too far ahead, players B and C will probably gang up to stop him. And as Tony pointed out, in competitive Narrativist games (Ron, if I misuse terminology again, prescribe appropriate penance), deciding to compromise and ally with an ideological adversary is not just a strategic decision but a moral statement.
The (I think rather elegant) bit about apocalypse girl's "sudden death" endgame mechanic is that it makes second place meaningful: You may not have won, but at least you weren't the guy whose elimination ended the game. Getting to Armageddon at all is a "victory" for either the Dragon or the Girl, even if they lose the final battle itself, and a total defeat for the World; avoiding Armageddon is a victory for the World (it doesn't end!), even if it then loses the sudden-death conditions and ends up being in thrall to Heaven or Hell forever. This might encourage two players to ally in lockstep against the third, which would be disfunctional, but the sudden-death victory conditions (who has more dice right now) make it very easy to backstab your ally at the last moment, if only by choosing to put the third player out of his misery by taking his Core and triggering endgame when your ally is low on dice. What I think it will do is encourage people to take more risks, because second place isn't nothing in this game.

All these elements are in service of play that escalates in one direction and then violently "snaps" back in another direction when someone makes a desperate decision. My question, of course, is, am I anywhere close to achieving this kind of dramatic instabillity?


II. Look, ma - no hands!

Having congratulated myself a bunch above, I'm going to congratulate myself more on something no one's remarked on yet -- which may mean that it isn't really there, of course.

Traditional RPGs -- heck, even most Forge RPGs -- have three parts, each more-or-less well-articulated: character creation and development ("chargen" and "advancement"); scenario creation ("situation"); and conflict resolution (even if it's just task resolution + GM fiat, as in many games). The thing I love most about Dogs in the Vineyard is how well these three things are integrated: The Initiation rules mean you use conflict resolution as part of character creation, the Fallout rules mean conflict resolution is character advancement, and the Town Creation rules fit Situation to character and conflict. Here's the thing I think I've managed to do with apocalypse girl: those three things are totally integrated. After you "seed" the system by creating your Core, any further development of your character, good or bad, comes about only through conflict resolutions, and conversely, the only things that conflict resolution affects are character and situation elements.

Likewise, there's no "fair and clear" phase where you negotiate possible conflict outcomes because what's at stake is specified by what Aspect of which Engine you target, and the very process of introducing Engines into play makes the character or situation element they represent into a potential stake. If it's in play, it's at risk.

My question to everyone is, (a) am I hallucinating, or is this really there? and (b) if it really is there, does it matter as anything more than a neat trick of design?


III. Problems

Now, here are the four major problems I see so far, and some tentative sketches of solutions:

a) The Gun's "ricochets" are way too powerful in this draft, totally overshadowing the dice the Gun gives you to roll at your target: automatically taking away a level of any Power or Loyalty rating that exceeds the die roll is too much. My thought for a fix is this: When you roll a Gun die against a target, any Power or Loyalty rating of any Engine in play is also targeted; put an additional die into play and roll it against each such Power or Loyalty rating. So if I roll a Gun Die and get a 5, and my own Core has Power 5, then I pick up another die and roll it against my own Core.

b) You only roll one die at a time against a particular target. That kind of incrementalism is fine in Capes and Dogs in the Vineyard because the individual dice build to a resolution of the whole conflict, and the actual effects of the dice come in a great big crash at the end (when you roll Fallout in Dogs, or divvy up Story Tokens, Debt, Inspirations, and narration rights in Capes). In this game, the dice take effect every time they hit a threshold equal to the target's Power or Loyalty, which may create a "thousand drops of rain erode the mountain" effect instead of sudden dramatic crashes. I'd have to playtest to see if this really does feel too much like trench warfare, though; Capturing and Cancelling dice should liven that up a bit. But ideally I'd figure a clean way to let people roll a bunch of dice at once.

c) Important characters, precisely because they're defined by multiple Engines that operate independently, feel more nebulous than minor characters defined by a single Engine; this is a general problem but is most obvious when you try to shoot the Gun at people and the rules don't tell you if they're dead or not ("Uh, I shot the guy and destroyed his Life -- but his Destiny, his Love of Fruit, and his Fast Car are still in play -- what did I do?). My thought for this is to create rules by which different Engines would connect to each other in a network, so that destroying (or capturing) a crucially located Engine would also disrupt a whole bunch of Engines that depended on it, which would be one way of modeling the "whole life" of a major character defined by multiple Engines, as well as such a character's effect on loved ones and so on. (The model here, for those who know it, is the old Illuminati game, not the CCG but the boxed-set one). But there may be a more elegant answer.

d) The mechanics and the meaning are dangerously distant from each other. Most of this is easily solved by writing a bunch of examples of play and examples of Meanings (like the current list of examples Cores) and giving guidance on how to narrate each trick of the dice. As Unco Lober said, "If game mechanics were stated in a way more integrated with storytelling, the problem wouldn't just arise." (Unco, welcome to the Forge! I'm flattered you unlurked on this thread. Is "Unco" your real name? How should we address you?). The only mechanical fix that I'm considering here is taking an idea from With Great Power... and requiring players to note down a few "Examples of Suffering" for each Engine that show how changes to it could be narrated.

Now, the obvious questions to everyone before I go off and try to write a second draft: What problems have I mis-diagnosed or missed completely? What more-elegant solutions am I missing?
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Unco Lober
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« Reply #13 on: November 20, 2005, 01:22:40 PM »

Just a small comment on piont III-c "Important characters."

Thinking of it right now, without yet playing the actual game and therefore going into abstraction (and the playtest is sheduled to tomorrow 11am, when we shall zee), I came upon the idea that it - just probably! - would be nice to introduce Engine classification and rules for different classes of Engines.
Eg.:
Engine - calamity;
Engine - miracle;
Engine - character;
Engine - character - trait (or somesuch);
Engine - fetish/artifact (including the Holy Grail and the fast car); etc..
Engine - character - traits may be ruled to die if their Character dies. But they may be more easily spawned, because without being connected to characters they simply can't be spawned at all. Players may put their Engines on their own characters to protect them and increasing their value for the side's strength (if they have a chraracter), or on their oppenents character, making the character partly their tool.
Just as the World did that in Your example above with the Girl.
A capture of a character by the means of capturing smaller connected engines - Dragon changing the love to lust, proudness to hate, respect to fanatism - and thats only one of the many possibilities..

Also I thought of a kind of an, exaggerating in names and terms, engine-gun hybrid. Meaning, the Engine that could be used by several sides, just as guns can. E.g. Calamities may be somewhat vulnerable or whatnot for the World, though the Dragon may have spawned it; and Miracles are up to both Girl-inspired forces (though not the Girl herself as a character, ofcourse) and the Dragon. But probably thats just me.
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Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #14 on: November 20, 2005, 03:17:09 PM »

There definitely need to be categories; whether they're just guides to narration (as per the categories in With Great Power...) or actually have mechanical effect is another question. I tend to lean towards the former, to keep the mechanics clean, but one "special funky power" per role (Grace for the Girl, Devil's Bargain for the Dragon, Compromise for the World?) would be a nice touch to distinguish the three.

Remember also that even though a character is killed, their personality traits may still affect the story: maybe the terrible consequences of someone's Treachery are not apparent until long after their death, or the memory of their Love gives their friends the strength to go on. (There's a great dream sequence in the last act of Shakespeare's Richard III that shows such effects at work).

Remember also that the "no superpowers" rule means "no miracles" either! (Eerie coincidences are fine, just not smiting and resurrecting and such). If the Holy Grail appears in your game, it's just a very, very, very, very old cup.

And please write up your playtest when you have a moment. (Do play the rules as written once before tinkering). For the sake of thread-management, I'd suggest you create a new thread under "Actual Play" for the playtest report itself and then post a link to it here.
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